A (Bourbon) Affair to Remember

W.L. Weller barrels getting their beauty sleep at Buffalo Trace
W.L. Weller barrels getting their beauty sleep at Buffalo Trace

The motto of Buffalo Trace Distillery is “Honor tradition. Embrace change.”

Not only does that sentiment apply to them, it was a theme that seemed to prevail throughout my first trip to Louisville, Kentucky in early June.

I was there for the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, a nearly week long “bourbon fantasy camp” organized by the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Kentucky Distiller’s Association. This is a consumer event that gives real bourbon fans a chance to experience unique elements of their favorite distilleries, and meet the people behind the whiskey, in intimate settings.

The afternoon before the Affair kicked off, I had arranged for a private trip to Buffalo Trace. The delightful Freddie Johnson showed me around. “Is this really my life?” I had to ask myself as I got to see first hand where the barrels for Single Oak Project are constructed, where ones for the next Experimental series and my beloved W.L. Weller lie sleeping, and where Gaz Regan’s bitters are produced. I peered into the giant three-story mash tuns, steaming with fermenting grains and witnessed Blanton’s being rolled out of the warehouse, emptied and then bottled, a friendly assembly line of staffers handling the iconic pony stoppers to cork the liquid in by hand. I saw the distillery’s 6 millionth barrel of bourbon aging in its own single warehouse, and heard the story about how it was rolled to its resting place by Johnson’s father Jimmy, a distinguished former employee who slowly completed the feat while in his 90s, with a large crowd cheering him on (once mature, the liquid in the signed barrel will be bottled and auctioned for charity) - all as the Kentucky river flowed majestically in the background.

 The author back on solid ground on 1st floor of the rickhouse

The author back on solid ground on 1st floor of the rickhouse

 view form the 7th floor

view form the 7th floor

It was an exhilarating afternoon, however, the fun was just beginning! The Affair officially kicked off with Bourbon Under the Rocks at Louisville Mega Caverns, where I got to spend the evening with one of our Louisville-based professors, Sara Havens, as attendees were treated to offerings from all the distilleries in the KY Bourbon trail (Bulleit, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Michter's and Old Forester), yummy local specialties, (including my first Hot Brown!), music from Billy Goat Strut Revue - all in a massive underground limestone cavern! There was even an option to explore an aerial rope course and zipline, although I didn’t partake. Well, I had to pace myself.

That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Bright and early the next day, we boarded the charter bus to Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center for Coopers and Cupids: Finding Your Single Barrel Soulmate. Here we had the chance to experience how fluctuating Kentucky seasonal conditions affect bourbon as it matures on different floors of the same rickhouse by sampling from a barrel of the exact same liquid, in the this case Evan Williams Single Barrel, put into oak in 2006, matured on three different levels. Heaven Hill’s master distillers - Craig Beam (son of Parker, who also made an appearance), Denny Potter and Charlie Downs - greeted small groups on each level to discuss bourbon production and answer questions while we tasted and evaluated the whiskey.

We climbed up and down the rickety staircase and navigated the floorboards, set wide apart for air circulation, as we approached each location. The difference in flavors was very apparent. The bourbon living on the seventh floor, the highest level, had the most exposure to the elements and therefore the highest cask strength and concentration of flavors (not to mention, most dizzying view straight through to the bottom between the floorboards). While the others were all delicious, I was most drawn to that one, which possesses a roasted cereal quality that ties the sweetness of the bourbon together, and maybe also because I am proud of myself for surviving what was to me a terrifying climb.

After lunch and a barrel rolling lesson and contest, we had a short break to clean up and don our glad rags before the Heaven Hill gang met up again for dinner at downtown Louisville’s Evan Williams Experience. Spirits writer Noah Rothbaum, with freshly published The Art of American Whiskey, led a panel discussion between three generations of the Shapira family, who have run Heaven Hill since after Prohibition, and at the time were among a minority of Jewish families living in Kentucky and running a local business.

One has to consider that the popularity of American whiskey spiraled into a huge decline in the 1970s and 80s, and the talk was particularly interesting when Max and members of the clan, including sprightly and elegant 101 year-old Ann Shapira, discussed how they recalibrated their company’s portfolio to include vodka, rum and other spirits in order to adapt to the changing marketplace, then how the sudden bourbon and rye boom in the 2000s propelled them to change gears again and re-focus on whiskeys. They also discussed the devastating 1996 distillery fire which destroyed several warehouses and resulted in extensive losses (they have since used the offsite distillery at Bernheim to produce all their whiskey, which is transported to Heaven Hill for aging), and the admirable show must go on attitude of their staff.

Along the way, the Whiskey Prof, (no relation), Bernie Lubbers, lead the audience in a tasting of four special whiskeys: a 6 Year Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond from 1936, a special edition Heaven Hill bottled exclusively for Max and Ellen Shapira’s wedding reception 1968, a now rare Evan Williams 2001 Single Barrel and Evan Williams 12 Yr 101 Proof.  And for a nightcap, those of us still standing were treated to a speakeasy style party in the grandiose Rathskeller of the Seelbach hotel hosted by Old Forester.

Next on the agenda was a trip to the former Stitzel-Weller Distillery, now home to the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience. To be honest, I was not as enthused to participate in this activity because, for now, the whiskey is still produced off site, and the place only just opened last fall. What would they have to show us besides the bones of the once majestic Old Fitzgerald facility and some dusty barrels while feeding us a lot of corporate whiskey jargon?

However, it was a pleasantly fun and informative afternoon, where we toured some of the grounds and saw the new bottling facility, then participated in an exercise led by Master Blender extraordinaire Andrew MacKay to try our hand at mingling our own bourbon blend. Tom Bulleit himself gave us an intimate tour of his new offices, which we were told were once used by Pappy Van Winkle himself, and even sat down to lunch with us and engage in individual chats.  With not much yet to work with, instead of smoke and mirrors, it felt like home and hearth. I look forward to tasting the next generation of whiskey that comes from there.

My final night of the Affair found me at the home of Jim Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe for “Bourbon-que.” The Noe family has its own separate smokehouse on site, and Noe himself, after leading a short bourbon tasting and talk (“How in the hell do those whiskey writers taste things like ‘peppermint’ in this?”), finished off some Booker’s Bourbon flambéed smoked pork chops as the centerpiece of the feast in the company of several family members. Inside the house, in Noe’s “man cave,” Brand Ambassador Megan Breier mixed things up at a choose-your-own-adventure Old Fashioned station with an array of whiskeys, bitters, syrups and fruits.

Here's Fred Noe making his flambéed pork chops, courtesy Fett Underwater Buffalo Productions.

Even Louisville itself is a town steeped in centuries of tradition that’s experienced a recent renaissance as brands such as Angel’s Envy and Old Forester construct new visitors’ centers along its downtown Whiskey Row. Nearby a young, creative community has flourished in Butchertown, once its thriving ethnically German meatpacking district, gone to an era of poverty and crime starting in the 70s that from what I hear truly lived up to the neighborhood’s name, but is now one of the most desirable locations for new businesses, restaurants, bars and boutiques.

Butchertown is where Joe Heron opened up Copper and Kings American brandy and liqueur distillery nearly a year ago. It’s an impressive, thoroughly modern, well designed and inviting facility decked out in stylized orange and black color schemes, down to every last detail including safety signs, with homages to the rock and roll musicians Heron and his wife admire. The spirits are informed by the methods of European brandy production, but with a distinctly American interpretation, using domestic fruits and botanicals, aging in barrels from local distilleries that benefit from a 24/7 music serenade and bottling the distillates without additional additives or coloring. Louisville didn’t need more whiskey, instead Heron offers deliciously clean and elegant grape and apple brandies, and botanically infused clear absinthes, including a lavender flavor that is sure to become one of my summer go-tos.

played out of Louisville at the Butchertown Art Festival
played out of Louisville at the Butchertown Art Festival

It’s in this district, accompanied my first evening in town with our Beer Professor, Kevin Gibson and my last day with my dear friend Shirer Burkett, I made it to Silver Dollar bourbon bar (an hour before they were forced to “embrace change” and suffer a power grid shutdown), Louis’s the Ton (an amazing revamped neighborhood dive), Sergio’s World Beers (essentially one man’s obsession turned into a refrigerated mecca for beer nerds, where beer and whiskey writer met in the middle to sip Against the Grain Kentucky Ry’ed Chiquin), eat a great lunch at the Garage Bar (who cure their own country ham jamon-style), and even take in a really fun and worthwhile neighborhood art festival on my way out.

Not bad for a first trip, but there is so much more to see in Bourbon (and beer, and brandy) country! Until next time. Y’all.